Rivercenter Mall prohibits open carry as described by the signs posted at it's entrances. Photo by Scott Ball.
Rivercenter Mall prohibits open carry as described by the signs posted at its entrances. Photo by Scott Ball.

For the first time since San Antonio was a frontier town, citizens can now openly carry a holstered handgun if they are among the state’s 825,000 residents licensed to carry a concealed handgun. The new law signed by Gov. Gregg Abbott last year went into effect Friday.

It already was legal to open carry long rifles and shotguns in Texas, which now becomes the 45th state – a statistic that surprises many – to allow open carry of holstered handguns. Only California, Florida, Illinois, New York and South Carolina still ban the practice.

Texas recognizes carry licenses from 41 other states, so more than seven million people can now openly carry holstered handguns in the state.

The appropriate place and role of personal firearms in a modern democracy is fast becoming one of the most divisive issues between Red and Blue America. President Barack Obama will confer with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch this week to explore ways he can use executive action to make it harder for people to obtain weapons and engage in mass shooting.

Republican presidential primary candidates are already attacking the president on the issue even before he has taken any action. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, meanwhile, made a national appearance Sunday morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and expressed hope that it will become easier rather than harder for individuals to purchase firearms in the future.

One issue for local law enforcement – San Antonio police and Bexar County sheriff’s deputies – is how much leeway individual officers have to stop gun-toting individuals in public and ask them to show concealed handgun permits. One of the most controversial aspects of the new law is the provision stating law enforcement officers cannot demand to see a license without cause. What constitutes cause? Many legal experts believe the matter will be tested in the courts once police start making such checks. The issue is explored in greater depth in this Texas Tribune article.

For people who oppose open carry and who support tighter firearms sales laws, the pro-Second Amendment, conservative position is hard to fathom. In the worst mass shooting cases in the United States in 2015, ranging from a lone wolf white supremacist to a Muslim fundamentalist couple who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, individuals acquired their weaponry and ammunition legally. And in no instances were they deterred by private citizens legally carrying firearms.

For many in San Antonio who won’t be carrying guns, either openly or concealed, a key question is this: where can other people carry handguns? Do people have to worry about encountering armed strangers in church, at their children’s school, son or daughter’s university, at the mall, the grocery store, or on their neighborhood sidewalk?

There are broad exceptions to the new law. The new open carry law exempts public and private colleges and universities, and gives all religious houses of worship the right to ban open carry.

“I was at a priest council meeting … and I was told by the chancery officials that open carry is not allowed inside the churches,” said Fr. David Garcia, the archdiocese’s director of the Old Spanish Missions interviewed Saturday afternoon at San Fernando Cathedral.

San Ferndando Cathedral at Main Plaza does not allow openly carrried weapons. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Ferndando Cathedral at Main Plaza, as almost all places of worship, does not allow openly carried weapons. Photo by Scott Ball.

Other exceptions include schools, correctional facilities, nursing homes, amusement parks, bars (anywhere that receives more than 51% of its income from alcohol sales), sporting events, scholastic events, and beyond security checkpoints in airports.

If you shop for groceries at H-E-B, the state’s largest private employer, you won’t see any open display of handguns, either. It’s one of several grocers and fast food chains to announce it prohibits open carry on its premises.

“As a retailer of alcohol, long guns and unlicensed guns are prohibited on our property under the Texas Alcohol and beverage Commission rules. H-E-B maintains the same policy we have for years, only concealed licensed handguns are allowed on our property,” the company announced in a statement.

Private property owners and businesses, including those that lease public property from the city or state, have the option to prohibit concealed carry and open carry. Locally, more and more companies have exercised their right to opt out of open carry and have posted signs prohibiting open carry, including Rivercenter Mall, Whole Earth Provisions at the Quarry Market, Rosella Coffee, and various movie theaters. That leaves hundreds that have not done so, like Bass Pro Shops and Kroger grocery stores.

Some businesses will try to deal with the issue in a more nuanced way. One is the Hotel Emma, which will not allow open carry on its premises, although guests and other visitors will not see a large sign outlining section 30.07 of the state’s penal code near the luxury hotel’s entrance or notifications stuck to windows like other businesses.

Instead, staff members have been instructed to discretely hand out a small card that outlines the hotel’s policy, in English and Spanish, in the event someone enters the hotel openly carrying a handgun.

The card handed out to open carriers at The Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Ball.
This card will be handed out to guests that openly carry handguns at The Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Ball.

Guest Service Associate Rita Perez takes a minute to find one of the cards at the front reception desk to show a reporter. This is the first time she’s had to find one, and hotel management does not foresee it becoming a significant issue. The Emma has other avenues to communicate with incoming guests that it is a no-open carry zone.

“We always send out a reservation confirmation letter and it lets people know, among other things, that (open carry is) not allowed,” she said.

Some businesses are just catching up to the news that the new law has gone into effect.

Southtown coffee shop, restaurant and bar Halcyon didn’t have an open carry notice posted on Saturday morning. General Manager Seth Williams, also a gun owner, ordered a “no open carry” sign Friday night after an SAPD officer reminded him of the new state law.

“What’s the point of open carry?” Williams said. “I don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Halcyon Coffee at Blue Star Arts Complex currently has signs outlawing open carry on it's premises. Photo by Scott Ball.
Inside Halcyon, at the Blue Star Arts Complex, will soon have signs prohibiting open carry on it’s premises. Photo by Scott Ball.

Several Home Depot employees on Saturday at the SW Military location thought the chain would prohibit open carry, but its corporate office, according to the Dallas Morning News, has indicated it will allow open carry. No signs were posted and a spokesperson could not be reached by deadline.

Some businesses haven’t made an official decision yet.

San Antonio Shoemakers (SAS) employees said they’ll likely have a staff meeting sometime soon to talk about their policy. The same is true for Canyon Cafe in the Quarry.

“I don’t want them in here, but I still have to talk to the guy that signs my check,” said Gary Branch, Canyon Cafe assistant manager.

David Doyle, owner of Sunset Home & Hardware in Alamo Heights said his instinct is against “turning anyone away” from his story, but that he’s not making any “knee-jerk” decisions about open carry.

“I’m going to listen to my customers,” Doyle said during a particularly busy Saturday afternoon. “We’ll see what happens.”

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Open carry in Texas changes almost nothing about the process governing  an individual’s purchase of a handgun and obtaining a permit for open carry. Texans must pass a background check, complete a safety and training course which now includes information about proper open carry/holster practices, be at least 21 years of age, and not have any felony convictions or convictions above a class B misdemeanor in the last five years.

So if you want to carry around a gun, you’ll still need to carry a license, too, but now instead of a Concealed Handgun License (CHL), it’s called a License to Carry.

The open carry legislation, House Bill 910, had less of an effect on the City of San Antonio than Senate Bill 273 did, said Jeff Coyle, the City’s Government and Public Affairs director. SB 273 prevents government entities from prohibiting concealed and/or openly carried weapons from entire buildings. Weapons are still not allowed at public meetings and staff areas, but “the law is forcing us to more clearly define ‘staff’ and ‘public’ areas.”

Basically, people can conceal or open carry in the lobby of City Hall after signing in, but once they head to a meeting, they’ll have to go through a metal detector, Coyle said. If they’re carrying a firearm, they’ll have to leave it in a gun locker at the front desk or take it off the premises to their car.

A City Clerk counter was built over the holidays in the first-floor lobby of City Hall to make it easier for citizens to access most services without having to go through security to access other floors.

Robert Rivard is director of the Rivard Report. Iris Dimmick is managing editor.